Tag Archives: Korean film

#Alive

Just a week or two ago, Sean and I were doing the Fantasia Film Festival thing and were about to watch a movie called Alive, for which I’d read the following synopsis: The rapid spread of an unknown infection has left an entire city in ungovernable chaos, but one survivor remains alive in isolation. It’s funny how we watch movies differently now that we’ve been living in pandemic-related isolation ourselves. Now I can’t even watch people in movies without face masks without feeling a bit of a fever coming on. But it turns out we were watching a different movie, also called Alive, no hashtag, and only now are we getting around to the more social media ready one, which is in fact the one with the raging infection.

Oh Joon-woo (Ah-In Yoo) wakes up alone in his apartment. His parents and sisters have gotten an early start, and Joon-woo isn’t exactly an early bird. Although he appears to be more or less a grown man, they’ve left him grocery money to restock the fridge, and his mother’s last plea is that he not spend the whole time playing video games while they’re away. Commence: video games! Except this turns out not to be just another ordinary day in Joon-woo’s life, as attested by the running and screaming of seemingly everyone else in his high-rise apartment building. Bits of news filter in from various media: some sort of infection transferred through blood is making victims extra violent and quite cannibalistic. You and I might call them zombies, or at least we did before we started battling super-bugs in real life. What will our zombie movies look like now? I bet they’ll cough.

A garbled final message from his parents implores him to survive, so he vows to stay in his apartment, but a) you’ll remember he never went for groceries and b) his apartment isn’t exactly invulnerable. Many days later, on the brink of starvation and in the throes of understandable depression, Joon-woo is all but resigned to his death when a laser pointer indicates another human presence. Out his window he sees that someone else has survived in the building across from his – a young woman named Kim Yoo-bin (Shin-Hye Park). Too far apart for real communication, and with flesh-craving zombies crawling around both their buildings and the parking lot between them, they remain alone but just a little less lonely.

I’m fond of movies that are about how life goes on even during the worst of circumstances, like how little boys still need to live their childhoods, even in Nazi Germany (Jojo Rabbit). And how romance can bloom even while a blood thirsty army is banging down your door. Ideal circumstances? Definitely not. But since when has that stopped anyone?

Director Il Cho navigates the complexities of a zombie-horror-romance in the smart phone age with blood, guts, and selfie sticks. Plus vlogs and drones for good measure. South Korea often does horror very well, and while I might not put this in Train to Busan territory, it’s a pretty decent watch, and since we are, for the most part, still social distancing as much as possible, it’s a good reason to stay home and stay safe, and let others take the stupid risks and internalize those consequences.

Stay #home, stay #Alive.

The Handmaiden

During the 1930s Japanese occupation of Korea, Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) lives on a large countryside estate with her abusive uncle. A new handmaid, Sook-Hee (Tae-ri Kim) arrives in the house to assist her, only the two bond in unexpected ways.

But what Hideko doesn’t know is that Sook-Hee was raised in a den of thieves – and pickpockets, forgers, human traffickers, and so on. A fellow criminal, playing the long con and posing as Japanese gentleman Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha), came to her with a proposal. Lady Hideko stands to inherit a vast fortune. If Sook-Hee agrees to help Hideko fall in love with him, they’ll rob her of her money and have her locked up in a madhouse. Sook-Hee accepts. But as she encourages Hideko’s seduction, she herself is falling for the lady, but her poverty and pride won’t let feelings get in the way of fortune.

The Handmaiden is an exceedingly beautifully-shot film with a score that sounds an awful lot like Downton Abbey. It’s loosely based on Sarah Waters’ crime novel, Fingersmith, but director Chan-wook Park (yes, the very same who gave us Oldboy) has his fingerprints all over this adaptation. His interpretation is visually luscious, of course, and the story more complex than it seems. This one too cleverly hints at the various power dynamics at play – between sexes, classes, and even colonized and colonizer.

While the erotic scenes are somewhat familiar and cliched, one bathtub scene involving a thimble will go down in the history books as a delightfully powerful lesbian maneuver. The Handmaiden is lush and decadent and often disturbing.

Hit-And-Run Squad

Korea is a machine. Honestly, I can’t help but admire the country’s dedication to arts and culture. Decades ago, the government assessed their economic standing and realized that they were vulnerable. If just one of its leading industries failed, it would take down the whole country with it. So they diversified in a way that few if any country ever has: they pumped tonnes and tonnes of money into developing culture – music, television, movies, and video games. South Korea has a population of just over 50 million, but chances are you’ve heard of their boy band invasion (BTS!), you’ve played their games (they’ve mostly developed computer gaming, like Overwatch and League of Legends), and you’ve seen some of their cinema’s best (Bong Joon-ho’s The Host or Snowpiercer or Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, for example). And this is despite the fact that most of us don’t speak Korean! American audiences have been notoriously difficult to penetrate with foreign languages. They hate subtitles and expect to be able to sing along to everything on the radio. But that’s changing, perhaps in part due to greater inclusivity and appreciation for other cultures, but mostly because the Korean machine is just so damn irrepressible.

That said, it feels like Korea might be poised to take over the world, and I might worry about that a bit if not for this: if the lung cancer doesn’t get them, the misogyny will. According to actual statistics, only about 40% of Korean men smoke (which is objectively pretty high), but in cinema, it’s nearly 100%. But misogyny is definitely 100%. And here’s the weird thing that I’ve been twisting around in my mind. America has a comparable rate of misogyny, it’s just that over here, we have this pretense that abuse should be closeted. We know it happens. If it happens behind closed doors, we can all look away and pretend otherwise. It’s embarrassing when it goes public because then we have to pretend to care. Not actually care. No nonnononono. The justice system makes that clear: we will not intervene until he kills her. Then we will be angry: boo! We’ll put him in magazines and make movies about him, and if he’s handsome then we’ll REALLY shake our heads. But as long as he keeps it quiet and private, we’ll let that shit happen for years. And even if it becomes public, we’re still often sympathetic, and might even vilify the women, for good measure. Mel Gibson, Charlie Sheen, Josh Brolin, Johnny Depp, Alec Baldwin, Michael Fassbender, and Christian Bale have all been accused of domestic violence, and we’ve seemingly given them a pass. In South Korean movies, however, violence against women is a little more upfront. The men are not afraid to toss around a woman like they might toss around any man in a common barfight, or even beat a subordinate who hasn’t done her job well. It’s a lot of equal opportunity violence, whereas over here, we “pride” ourselves on only hurting our wives and girlfriends and daughters in the privacy of our homes. Is that fucked up or what?

Anyway, to the movie. Hit and Run Squad will be a little difficult to summarize, but here’s my lame attempt. Officer Eun Shi-Yeon (Hyo-jin Kong) is investigating government corruption – particularly a case in which a very successful Formula 1 driver, Jung (Jung-suk Jo), is paying off the police commissioner. Tricky. But that investigation gets botched and Officer Eun gets demoted to the hit-and-run squad, where she’s teamed with Seo Min-Jae (Jun-yeol Ryu), an unambitious, spacey looking dude who just happens to be the Sherlock Holmes of hit and runs. And the hit and run squad just happens to also be looking at Jung for an ‘accident’ possibly involving one of his cars.

One thing is abundantly clear: Jung is a very bad dude. But he’s also nearly untouchable. But Eun is persistent and Seo is motivated in his own way; it also turns out that he’s got an interesting past that might start to bleed into the present, with both positive and negative repercussions.

Hit-And-Run Squad is a police procedural, but Korean dramas tend to have it all: comedy, romance, melodrama, highs and lows. South Korea’s primary television export tends to be their soap operas, and a lot of their films feel touched by a telenovela. At one point, this movie was scored overdramatically by a jazzy saxophone accompanied by insistent snapping, and it felt very much Too Much, but you have to look past these foibles in Korean cinema, because it’s not quite how we like to do things here, but if we kept ourselves in the tiny box of American cinema, we’d never have any fun.

The cinematography is pretty great, the car chases feel urgent and dangerous, and it’s fun to see them take place literally anywhere but Atlanta once in a while. The acting was quite good too, or at least the actors were adept at working with what they’re given. While it’s nice to see a female lead, and Officer Eun is undoubtedly the film’s lead and the audience placeholder, she’s the least compelling character, having been given no back story and very little development. She’s overshadowed not just by Jung and Seo, but by a couple of even lesser male protagonists as well. There’s a trio of important women in the film but they’re extremely one-dimensional and depressingly primitively drawn.

Of course, if you’re here for hot cars and top speeds, you likely won’t care that a female officer is reprimanded at work by blows to the head until she bleeds, and that her ability to bleed is one of the few things we know about her. Heck, you might even be into jazzy sax, in which case, more power to you.